No matter how you feel about it, virtual reality filmmaking and experiential storytelling is happening. And it's getting better and better. No longer just a gimmick, filmmakers are using the technology to serve the story instead of the other way around.
One of the best places to experience the latest VR and other immersive storytelling offerings is the thoughtfully curated interactive lineup at the Tribeca Film Festival's Hub , which boasted a Virtual Arcade of 15+ VR films in addition to its Storyscapes and TFI Interactive programming this year. The highlighted projects were wildly diverse in subject and execution, ranging from 6x9 , a visceral documentary about solitary confinement; to Hard World for Small Things , a dramatic narrative as experienced from the backseat of a convertible in Los Angeles; to Allumette , a tear-jerker animated film that lets viewers waltz through the clouds.
If you're thinking about venturing into VR or experimenting with other new forms of storytelling, take heed from some of the creators and speakers from this year's lineup.
"Everything in the VR space is a suggestion."
1. Let your narratives collide
One of the four Storyscapes installations, Seances , co-created by celebrated experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin , invites small audiences to collaboratively choose thumbnails on a touch-screen light table, thereby producing a sequence of scenes that would then screen for them as a one-time-only viewing experience.
As with many contemporary narratives that rely on audience participation, this design meant that the filmmakers had to give up some control over the outcome, but producer Alicia Smith with project collaborator the National Film Board of Canada recounted this as part of the point. "It was built that way at scriptwriting the level," she said. "They saw the narratives as colliding, and from those collisions, new narratives would emerge."
By making audiences instinctively choose scenes and letting the computer be the editor, juxtapositions create new meanings that the original filmmakers could not have anticipated. Smith admitted that "some will be fantastic; some not." But isn't that true of any film?
2. Create situations instead of scenes
Featured VR film The Turning Forest is a delightful, magical experience. Imagine if you could have met Falkor the Dragon from The Neverending Story, jumped on his back, and ridden him through the sky as the story unfolded.
"Camera work is outsourced to the user."
"If you come from the filmmaker tradition," director Oscar Raby advised, "start by realizing that everything in the VR space is a suggestion. Camera work is outsourced to the user." Thus, your job is to take care of the audience by understanding what they are going through and "conducting" them through the experience. "You have to think about the things that might happen, and then you give them a flow, so the journey of the user makes sense."
As the director in VR, part of your role is to create situations, not just a sequence of actions. And it's not only the director's role that is different: in the script, the place changes rather than the action, and ultimately the audience is the one taking the hero’s journey, even if they are not the protagonist. According to Raby, "it’s the audience that goes through the experience and comes out changed."
3. Think outside the frame
TFI Interactive speaker Jessica Brillhart (whose 360-degree film World Tour is shown above) has possibly the coolest job title today: Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google. In her presentation, she acknowledged that "a well-crafted frame is remarkable," but credited VR for embracing our ability to turn away from the frame.
Brillhart shared some details of her method for "Probabilistic Experiential Editing" in VR. Despite its unfortunate acronym, PEE is a useful way of thinking about editing in a situation where the viewer can look anywhere. You can both guess where their attention will gravitate and lead them to specific points by, for example, using spatial audio as a trigger to draw audience attention. Then, you can create the equivalent of a match cut, but matching on points of attention rather than specific objects.
In thinking outside the frame, "you can get audiences to see what you want them to see by guessing where they will look and then using that to send them to another space or scene." This opens up possibilities to use traditional editing theory in new ways.
4. You can still D.I.Y. it
Gadget geeks can embrace the myriad opportunities that VR offers to tinker with its evolving gear.
Case in point is the story behind The Click Effect , one of this year's most effective uses of VR. A New York Times and VRSE collaboration by Sandy Smollan and James Nestor, the project takes audiences underwater with free-divers to come face-to-face—and more importantly, mouth-to-ear—with dolphins and sperm whales.
"We were the first to do this, and it was a nightmare."
The original 360 video was captured for scientific research about dolphin communication and intelligence, but VR turned out to be the best way to engage audiences beyond the scientific community.
Nestor’s background is in journalism, and he had little previous filmmaking experience. He not only had to learn to free dive for this project, but also how to shoot 360-degrees underwater. "We were the first to do this, and it was a nightmare," Nestor half-joked. Since a 360-rig didn’t yet exist for underwater shoots, the crew had to come up with their own. The big problem? The cameras are controlled via Bluetooth, but Bluetooth doesn't work below the sea. The team decided to load and activate the cameras on the surface; they had 40 minutes to swim out to locations, dive down, make adjustments, and shoot before coming back up for air and starting the whole process over again.
GoPro's forthcoming Omni camera claims to enable 360-degree underwater shots, but there are still plenty of ways for the D.I.Y.-er in all of us to push the boundaries of VR gear.
5. Your location can be part of the story
Immersive storytelling is not limited to virtual locations; we have more ways than ever to make real locations part of our stories, as well. One of the most fun illustrations of this concept was presented by Matt Johnson, founder of Bare Conductive , which makes products like electrically conductive paint.
Johnson and his company encourage "storytelling through playful interactions." They envision a world in which electronics are fully integrated into an environment, rather than dominating it. Imagine if audiences could physically step into your set, and by touching different items on the wall, or sitting on certain pieces of furniture, different parts of your story would be revealed to them. That future is here.
In this 360° image from Tribeca world premiere VR film 'The Ark' by Eline Jongsma and Kel O'Neill, rhino keeper Zachariah feeds Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on earth.
None of these technologies or tools will replace feature films, and we wouldn't want them to. But if you are a filmmaker or storyteller who wants to "think outside the frame," now is your moment.
What do you think is the most exciting new storytelling tool? What makes you nervous about these new forms? Chime in below.
Be sure to check back for more coverage of Tribeca 2016 .
Header image from The Turning Forest.